The Murder OfF Thomas O’Flaherty
Edward J. Law (2015)
On a little travelled side road in the vicinity of the chapel and round tower of Tullaherin stands Castlefield, a middling sized country house. The main structure dates from the first half of the eighteenth century, and in the latter half of that century it was the scene of a crime which would have been suited to a gothic novel, in keeping with the appearance of the house.
On 1st July 1778 Finn’s Leinster Journal, the Kilkenny newspaper, recorded the death of Thomas O’Flaherty Esq., of Castlefield, a Justice of the Peace for the county. Looking back over the centuries there was nothing out of the ordinary about that. However, we know that there were rumours following O’Flaherty’s demise, that it was not from natural causes, and a couple of years later the rumours had reached such a level that they could no longer be ignored by those in authority.
In March 1781 Thomas Lonergan and Susannah O’Flaherty published separate advertisements, though with almost identical wording, that a false and malicious report had been circulated, that Thomas O’Flaherty of Castlefield in the County of Kilkenny, died by poison, and that they were concerned in administering the same, and that they had surrendered themselves to stand trial at the next assizes if any charge were to be brought against them.
Lonergan, a son of Edward Lonergan, a baker in Kilkenny city, had been educated at Trinity College, and was engaged by Thomas O’Flaherty as a tutor at Castlefield, where he was to live with the family. It was alleged that Thomas’s wife, Susannah, and Lonergan having developed an intimate relationship decided to do away with her husband, and that he was poisoned with arsenic administered in a meal of boiled turnip, crab meat and custard pudding – no half measures.
Susannah did not stand trial, the High Sheriff of Kilkenny stated that though Lonergan had surrendered to him as stated in the advert, Susannah had not. It appears that she fled the country with no intention of facing trial, leaving her lover to take the blame. We have no knowledge of her later life.
In November 1781 Lonergan was transferred to Dublin from the County Jail in Kilkenny under escort of a detachment of the 67th Regiment of Foot to stand trial at the King’s Bench.
Witnesses testified that the corpse turned black and the nails blue, the hair fell out and that the body had been covered with green sods to stop it swelling. It is probable that one of the witnesses, Edward Keary of Kilkenny, cabinet maker and undertaker, was known to Lonergan’s father which may account for the rather anodyne evidence he gave: that he made the coffin, and saw the corpse put into it. That it appeared to him like other corpses. That he did not examine it. That he observed no uncommon blackness. That he might have died of poison for aught he knew. But the statement elicited by further questioning – That he saw him taken out of a pit in the barn, which is not usual, he never saw an instance of it before – could only have added to the body of evidence which led to a verdict of guilty and the sentence that Lonergan be hanged.
The sentence was duly carried out in November 1781 at Stephen’s Green. And so ended the life of 26 year old Thomas Lonergan; or did it? It is related, perhaps mythically, that the hangman was bribed to arrange that the neck should not be broken and to allow swift removal of the body by Lonergan’s friends. It is said that this was done and that Lonergan was revived and subsequently travelled to London and engaged the assistance of an old schoolfellow, who effected his escape to a French monastery where he lived out the remainder of his life.